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Archive for January, 2013

Screenplay for Laurence Olivier’s Unproduced Macbeth Film Found

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

A researcher in the Great Britain has unearthed the supposedly lost screenplay for a projected film version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which was to be directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, starring Olivier and his then-wife, Vivien Leigh.

Olivier and Leigh had presented Macbeth on stage in 1955, but financing fell through, and they never got a chance to make the film; more’s the pity. As The Guardian’s Steven Morris writes, “Macbeth was going to be Olivier’s fourth cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare following successful versions of Hamlet, Henry V and Richard III. He and Leigh had starred in a much lauded production of Macbeth in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1955 and Olivier was keen to adapt it for the cinema.

But the project was shelved in 1958, mainly because of financial problems, and Olivier later claimed there were no surviving scripts, only a ’sketch’. Since then the lost project has been seen as a gap in British cinema history and fed into the idea of the ‘Scottish play’ as an unlucky one. More than half a century later, it fell to Jennifer Barnes, a 31-year-old English lecturer from the University of Exeter, to provide some of the answers. She was going through papers for research on Olivier’s film version of Richard III in the manuscripts reading room at the British Library when she came across references to Macbeth scripts.

‘I was going through the catalogues and I pulled up a script and found it was Macbeth. I didn’t believe it because I knew it wasn’t supposed to exist.’ The papers were part of an archive bought for £1m by the library from Olivier’s family in 2000. ‘I guess the people who catalogued them didn’t know how important they were,’  Barnes said.

The screenplay opens not as the play does, with the three witches, but with an image of Macbeth gazing into a pit at a mortally wounded version of himself, ‘his blood colouring the water all around him.’ In the early part of the movie the misty landscapes (Olivier had planned to film on location in Scotland, and the script mentions Inverness, Skye and the village of Scone) provide a stark contrast to the solid castle interiors.

Later the distinction becomes less strong as Olivier envisaged the damp fog invading the enclosed spaces and the greys giving way to reds as the action turns bloody. At times Macbeth and Lady Macbeth morph into the witches and there is one shot in the script in which the Macbeth’s head dissolves and transforms into the witches’ cavern.

The biggest surprise, however, is the loss of part of Macbeth’s ‘Is this a dagger?’ speech. Olivier intended to miss out the opening lines and start the speech halfway through as Leigh’s Lady Macbeth dips her hands in the dead king’s blood. Olivier was not planning to show Macbeth carrying out the murder.

Barnes believes the screenplays shed an intriguing light on the relationship of Olivier and Leigh, which was breaking down by the late 50s. ‘One of the recurring stories was that Leigh was taking away Olivier’s power, making him a lesser man. I think there is an emphasis on the breakdown of the Macbeths’ marriage in the screenplay.’

You can read the entire story here; fascinating stuff, and a great find.

Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture by Ian Olney

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Here’s an excellent new book on European horror cinema by Ian Olney, from Indiana UP.

This is a book that has been long in the making, and the effort and work show on every page. Olney does a superb job tracking modern European horror films from Italy, Spain and France, in a style that is at once academically rigorous and at the same time absolutely accessible; in short, this is a theoretical text that doesn’t drown itself in artificial systematizing or outdated jargon. Instead, this is a lively, informed, authoritative text on a group of films that have become increasingly influential in horror filmmaking in the United States, exploring the work of such artists as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and many, many others.

As the jacket copy notes, “beginning in the 1950s, ‘Euro Horror’ movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York’s Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema—including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films—and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.”

The first reviews are already in, and they are raves:

“From lesbian vampires to cannibal zombies, this remarkable book charts the rise and fall of the European horror film, and most significantly its rediscovery by Western fans and critics in the 21st century. In a style both sophisticated and lucid, Olney examines key films and filmmakers within their national and international contexts. Guaranteed to send scholars and fans running back to their DVD outlets, either to discover or revisit some of the oddest and most provocative horror films of all time.” —Harry M. Benshoff, author of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film.

“Ian Olney’s new book takes us on a journey into the dark world of European horror cinema. He offers up fascinating analyses of individual Eurohorror films while also, more provocatively, arguing for the value of Eurohorror generally to a contemporary politics of identity. Not everyone will agree with what Olney has to say, but his approach is always thoughtful and accessible and it demands our attention. This is an important contribution to the literature on horror cinema.” —Peter Hutchings, author of The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema

“Olney takes on a cinema that, much like the monsters it features, keeps coming back no matter how often you kill it. His welcome study traces the emergence, disappearance, and return of Euro-Horror within US culture since the fifties, its revilers and devotees, its subversive potential, and its echoes in the work of filmmakers like Haneke, von Trier, or Almódovar. In the process, Olney explodes the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie.” —Linda Schulte-Sasse, Macalester College

This last quote really sums up the book’s impressive achievement: Olney really does “the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie,” documenting the varying ways in which these films are apprehended by audiences around the globe, and the ways in which they transcend the boundaries of genre and artificial binaries to reach out to the widest possible audience.

This is a book to buy, and read, at once.

The Crazy Family (1984)

Friday, January 25th, 2013

Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family (1984) is one of the best Japanese films you’ve never seen.

As Steven Puchalski wrote – in part – of the film in 1994, ten years after the film’s release, “not many people caught this pitch-black comedy when it was released in the United States — no surprise since its New York City engagement consisted of a one-week run at an upscale arthouse theatre, and a sparse, thoroughly confused audience of blue-haired Upper West Siders. Though still unavailable on video, I’d like to give it my vote as one of the most genuinely demented movies to ever emerge from Japan. Directed by Sogo Ishii [who subsequently changed his name to Gakuryu Ishii] this was his first feature film to be picked up by an American distributor [New Yorker Films, who subsequently went out of business, leaving the film in limbo].

Mixing sledgehammer social satire with rapid-fire cinematic dementia, this is an unforgettable excursion into the darkest recesses of his culture’s middle-class values, as well as a precursor to such ’90s cult hits as Tetsuo: The Iron Man. [Utterly] unrelenting, The Crazy Family focuses on the outwardly-sane Kobayashi family. They’re an Asian bourgeois [family unit], complete with a successful dad, a loving wife, and two well-adjusted children. To top it off, they’ve just moved into their suburban dream home. Sounds perfect? Not for long. Because soon their unwanted grandfather moves in, white ants are discovered feasting on the woodwork, tempers begin to percolate, and the family’s oft-mentioned “sickness” takes over, which sends our happy Nuclear Unit spinning headfirst into a series of comic obsessions.

Father begins digging up the floorboards and spreading toxic bug poison; the straight-laced mother does an impromptu striptease for her ever-more-paranoid hubbie; and the daughter practices for her unlikely pop star career. Meanwhile, the son crams for his Tokyo University entrance exams by turning his room into a high-tech nightmare, complete with electrodes, glowing pyramids, and a handy knife which he stabs himself with in order to stay awake.

The household hostilities escalate and soon the place becomes a full-scale battlefield — the family armed with mothballed World War II weapons, a chainsaw, even a baseball bat with the family dog strapped to it. [Grandfather] goes so far off the deep end that he takes his pre-pubescent granddaughter hostage. In between the various fires and explosions, Ishii makes scathingly hilarious points about life in modern-day Japan, where socially-programmed perfection and technological advances have taken their toll on a new generation. Imagine a movie that begins like [an episode of the 1950s Cold War television series] Father Knows Best, turns into a mass-hysteria mix of The Shining meets The Simpsons, edited like a Road Runner cartoon [. . .] and you have The Crazy Family.”

I was lucky enough to see this film in a theater when it first came out, and it absolutely amazed me; so much so that I went right back in and saw it again immediately, being sure that I’d probably never be able to see it again. As it turns out, I was — sadly — absolutely right. The clip above gives you some idea of the quirky power of the film; someone should sort out the rights to this lost jewel, and release it as soon as possible. It’s brilliant, brutal filmmaking, and deserves the widest possible audience. In addition, it has none of its’ power in the last twenty-five years; if anything it seems more modern than much of contemporary cinema.

Click here, or on the image above to see a clip from the film; this is a lost masterpiece.

Death of The Moguls Radio Interview with Mark Lynch

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, watches rushes in his screening room.

This afternoon, I had the good fortune to talk with Mark Lynch for his NPR show Inquiry from WICN radio, on my new book Death of the Moguls. In the 1930s and 40s the great Hollywood studios were ruled by a small group of men who had complete control over which films got made and what stars got to appear in those films. These moguls rule was absolute and together they had a feeling of “absolute immortality.” They were the real gods of Hollywood. But after they died, the era of the classic Hollywood studio also came to an end and the studios lost their individual identities. Here, I get a chance to talk about the book with Mark Lynch; we ran out of time just as we were getting started! Hope to do it again.

Click here, or on the image above, to hear the entire half hour show.

Luis Buñuel Gets An Academy Award

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Wearing a blond wig and some serious shades, Luis Buñuel poses with the Academy Award for his film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

As Wikipedia notes, “After having announced that Tristana would be his last film due to feeling like he was repeating himself, Buñuel met with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and discussed the topic of repetition. Shortly afterwards he met with film producer Serge Silberman, who told him an anecdote about having forgotten about a dinner party and being surprised to find six hungry friends show up at his front door. Buñuel was suddenly inspired and Silberman agreed to give him a $2,000 advance to write a new script with Carrière, combining Silberman’s anecdote with the idea of repetition. Buñuel and Carrière wrote the first draft in three weeks and finished the fifth draft by the Summer of 1971, with the title originally being Bourgeois Enchantment. Silberman was finally able to raise the money for the film in April 1972 and Buñuel began pre-production.

Buñuel cast many actors whom he had worked with in the past, such as Fernando Rey and Michel Piccoli, and catered their roles to their personalities. He had more difficulty casting the female leads and allowed actresses Delphine Seyrig and Stéphane Audran to choose which parts they would like to play, before changing the script to better suit them. Jean-Pierre Cassel auditioned for his role and was surprised when Buñuel cast him after simply glancing at him once.

Filming began on May 15, 1972 and lasted for two months with an $800,000 budget. In his usual shooting style, Buñuel shot few takes and often edited the film in camera and during production. On the advice of Silberman, Buñuel used video playback monitors on the set for the first time in his career, resulting in a vastly different style than any of his previous films, including zooms and tracking shots instead of his usual close-ups and static camera framing.

This also resulted in Buñuel being more comfortable on set, and in limiting his already minimal direction to technical and physical instructions. This frustrated Cassel, who had never worked with Buñuel before, until Rey explained that this was Buñuel’s usual style and that since they were playing aristrocrats their movements and physical appreance was more important than their inner motivation.

Buñuel once joked that whenever he needed an extra scene he simply filmed one of his own dreams. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie includes three of Buñuel’s recurring dreams: a dream of being on stage and forgetting his lines, a dream of meeting his dead cousin in the street and following him into a house full of cobwebs, and a dream of waking up to see his dead parents staring at him.

The film was both a box office hit in Europe and the US, and critically praised, yet Buñuel later said that he was disappointed with the analysis that most film critics made of the film. He also disliked the film’s promotional poster, depicting a pair of lips with legs and a derby hat. Buñuel and Silberman traveled to the US in late 1972 to promote the film. However, Buñuel did not attend his own press screening in Los Angeles and told a reporter at Newsweek that his favorite characters in the film were the cockroaches.

George Cukor Hosts a lunch for Luis Buñuel. Back Row from left: Robert Mulligan, William Wyler, George Cukor, Robert Wise, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Serge Silberman. Front Row from left: Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, and Rouben Mamoulian.

While visiting Los Angeles, Buñuel, Carrière and Silberman were invited to a lunch party by Buñuel’s old friend George Cukor, and other guests included Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Rouben Mamoulian, John Ford, William Wyler, Robert Mulligan and Robert Wise (resulting in a famous photograph of the directors together, other than an ailing Ford). Fritz Lang was unable to attend, but Buñuel visited him the following day and received an autographed photo from Lang, one of his favorite directors.

Sensing that he had a special film, Silberman decided not to wait until May to premiere the film at the Cannes Film Festival and instead released it in the fall of 1972 specifically to make it eligible for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Buñuel was famously indifferent to awards and jokingly told a reporter that he had already paid $25,000 in order to win the Oscar. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Silberman accepted on Buñuel’s behalf at the ceremony. At the Academy’s request, Buñuel later posed for a photograph while holding the Oscar, wearing a blond wig and oversized sunglasses.”

The one, the only Luis Buñuel. Click here for a remembrance of Buñuel’s last days by his long time friend and scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrière.

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Captain Marvel was the first comic book superhero to hit the screen.

A lot of people probably don’t know that Captain Marvel, originally a comic book character for Fawcett Publications, was the first superhero whose exploits were adapted for the screen, in a Republic Pictures serial from 1941, directed by William Witney (Quentin Tarantino’s favorite director) and John English. With an epic running time of 216 minutes, the serial played out in 12 chapters, spread out over 12 Saturday mornings, when it would run as a continuing feature as part of the Saturday matinee program at movie theaters. Serials in the sound era ended production in 1956, and the genre had been around since the silent era, but among serial aficionados, Republic’s serials have a special place of pride as being the most slickly produced and directed, with superb special effects by Howard and Theodore Lydecker, and non-stop, pulse pounding action.

As Wikipedia notes of Captain Marvel’s genesis and production, the “Adventures of Captain Marvel is a 1941 twelve-chapter film serial directed by John English and William Witney for Republic Pictures, adapted from the popular Captain Marvel comic book character then appearing in Fawcett Comics [. . .] during an archaeological expedition to Siam, the Malcolm Archaelogical Expedition unearths the lost Golden Scorpion, an ancient, multi-lensed statue with a curse attached, which has the power to transmute base metals into gold, but also to destroy those who seek to misuse its power. Billy Batson [Frank Coghlan, Jr.], a young man who has tagged along on the expedition, meets the ancient wizard Shazam, who grants him the power to become Captain Marvel [Tom Tyler] and protect those who may be in danger from the Scorpion’s curse.

The lenses from the Golden Scorpion are divided among five scientists of the Expedition, but a black-hooded villain known as the Scorpion then attempts to acquire all of the lenses and the Scorpion device itself. Several expedition members are killed in the Scorpion’s quest despite Captain Marvel’s continual efforts to thwart him. Deducing that the Scorpion always seems to know what goes on at all the meetings with the scientists, Billy later confides his suspicions to his friends, Betty Wallace [Louise Currie] and Whitey Murphy [William Benedict], that the Scorpion might be one of the archaeological team.

The Scorpion later discovers the connection between Billy and Captain Marvel. After capturing him, the Scorpion interrogates Billy for the secret. Billy transforms into Captain Marvel and reveals the Scorpion to be one of the last surviving scientists, who is then killed by an angry Siamese native. Captain Marvel tosses the scorpion statue into a volcano’s molten lava to prevent it from ever being used for evil. Once it is destroyed, Captain Marvel is instantly transformed back into Billy Batson [. . .]

Adventures of Captain Marvel was budgeted at $135,553, although the final negative cost was actually $145,588 (a $10,035, or 7.4%, overspend) — [still a mere $2,330,151.43 in 2012 dollars]. It was filmed between December 23, 1940 and January 30, 1941 under the working title Captain Marvel. The serial was an outgrowth of Republic’s failed attempt at a serial which would feature National Periodical Publications [today known as DC Comics]’s Superman. When DC refused to grant Republic the rights to the character, Republic approached Fawcett Comics, and struck a deal to bring Captain Marvel to the screen. Captain Marvel was actually more popular the Superman as a comic book character at the time, outselling Superman by a a considerable margin.

Director William Witney was, however, skeptical about trying to film Captain Marvel after the legal problems with Superman, but the serial went ahead on schedule. DC attempted legal action to prevent the filming, citing Republic’s previous attempt at a Superman serial, but was unsuccessful. Adventures of Captain Marvel was a huge success at the box office, and is considered by many to be Republic’s finest chapter play of the 66 serials the company produced. About a decade later, following a legal battle with DC and a declining market, Fawcett ceased publication of all its comic series. In the 1970s, the Captain Marvel family of characters was licensed and revived (and ultimately purchased) by DC Comics.”

The problem with Republic serials for the contemporary viewer, however, is that almost none of them are available in DVD format. When VHS tapes were first introduced, Republic put out most their serials in excellent two-tape transfers, necessitated by the long running time of each production, but when DVDs were phased in, for some reason, the serials never made the jump to the new format. Happily, Adventures of Captain Marvel is the exception to that rule, and is readily available on a legal DVD from Artisan Releasing and Republic Pictures, in a sparkling transfer.

If you’re interested in the history of comic book films, this is indispensable viewing.

Digital Age Prompting Closure of Military Base Movie Theaters

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Military base movie theaters are closing because of the shift to digital projection.

Here’s an interesting piece by Dirk Lammers of the San Francisco Chronicle on the closing of numerous military base movie theaters around the globe, because they can’t get the funding to make the jump to digital projection. As Lammers writes of the photo above, “movie patrons wait for the showing of Hotel Transylvania inside the theater on Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota on its last day of operation, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service theater serving airmen and their families is one of 60 across the globe that’s closing because it’s too expensive to switch from 35 millimeter film prints to an all-digital projection format.

Stacey Darling loves watching family movies at the Ellsworth Air Force Base theater in South Dakota because it’s so much more affordable than taking her three children to the multiplex in nearby Rapid City. Darling, whose husband is an airman, has been catching second-run films on base for about 2 1/2 years, and was there Saturday for the theater’s last showing. The movie theater is among 60 around the globe run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service that is screening its last picture show amid the industry’s conversion to digital projection.

Darling said she wishes she could go to the theater even more now that her husband, Senior Master Sgt. David Darling, has deployed to southwest Asia. [But] it’s just not cost effective for the exchange service to invest the $120,000 per theater needed to convert from 35 millimeter film to the new format at the theaters that are being closed, said spokesman Judd Anstey. ‘At locations where customer attendance is decreased due to a preference for off-installation entertainment venues, a determination has been made that continued operation is no longer a viable option,’ Anstey said.”

I have only this to say: $120,000 a theater to convert to digital? This is too much money? These theaters provide both entertainment and a meeting place for those in the armed forces; once again, one more place for people to gather together and share a sense of community is vanishing in the digital era.

Read the entire article by clicking here.

Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968)

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

The recent wave of gun violence is impossible to ignore.

Since the shootings in Colorado, Newtown, CT, and elsewhere, the gun debate is now front and center in American national politics. In 1968, long before the problem became epidemic, director Peter Bogdanovich made one of the most insightful films about this problem with Targets, a film that among other things traces movie violence to gun violence, and presents a picture of cultural emptiness and societal freefall which is more timely today than it was even upon its initial release.

As I write today in the journal Film International, Peter Bogdanovich got his start as a critic and historian, conducting interviews with some of cinema’s most illustrious directors in their twilight years, which were published first in a variety of books and magazines, and finally collected in his volume Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors in 1998. But Bogdanovich wanted to do more. He moved to Los Angeles and fell in with the Roger Corman circle at the height of its creative brilliance, and soon found himself working on such landmark exploitation vehicles as The Wild Angels (1966), in which he did double duty as an Assistant Director and an extra.

The next logical step was directing a movie himself, and Corman, then able to green light films with modest budgets that would actually wind up in a theater, as opposed to going straight to tape, VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray or VOD, famously offered Bogdanovich a deal. Boris Karloff owed Corman two days work on a multipicture deal, and he offered the fledgling director two days of Karloff, twenty minutes of footage from the recently completed film The Terror (1963, ostensibly a Corman film, but one which nearly everyone in Corman’s circle had a hand in directing, including Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill and Jack Nicholson), with a minimal budget and shooting schedule. Corman told Bogdanovich that if the finished film was any good, he’d distribute it through Paramount; if not, he’d dump it in drive ins through American International Pictures.

Absorbing this, Bogdanovich went home, and working with his then-wife, Polly Platt, and an uncredited Samuel Fuller, who contributed considerably to the final script, drafted a screenplay about the last days of a aging horror star, Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff), who wants to quit the business because he’s sick of starring in one rotten horror film after another; in addition, he feels that his brand of Gothicism is out of date, and that he should quit the business gracefully while he’s still in demand.

At the same time, in a parallel story, young All-American Vietnam veteran Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly, in a terrifyingly realistic performance) is having trouble readjusting to society after his hitch in the service, and goes on a murderous rampage as a sniper, picking off unsuspecting people from the top of a huge oil refinery tank, and later, from behind the screen of a drive in theater. He does all of this quite casually, as if the entire rampage was simply a sporting event, which, of course, it is for him. He has no empathy for his victims; he has no feeling for anyone. All of his victims are simply targets, as the title states with succinct finality.”

You can read the entire article here; this is a problem that simply must be solved.

Spike Lee’s America by David Sterritt

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Here’s a must-read book on the American filmmaker Spike Lee.

As the website for the book notes, “Spike Lee has directed, written, produced, and acted in dozens of films that present an expansive, nuanced, proudly opinionated, and richly multifaceted portrait of American society. As the only African-American filmmaker ever to establish a world-class career, Lee has paid acute attention to the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. But white men and women also play important roles in his movies, and his interest in class, race, and urban life hasn’t prevented his films from ranging over broad swaths of the American scene in stories as diverse as the audiences who view them. His defining trait is a willingness to raise hard questions about contemporary America without pretending to have easy answers; his pictures are designed to challenge and provoke us, not ease our minds or pacify our emotions. The opening words of his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing present his core message in two emphatic syllables: ‘Wake up!’” Spike Lee’s America is a vibrant and provocative engagement not only with the work of a great filmmaker, but also with American society and politics.”

The book’s author, David Sterritt, is Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and Professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Here are some early reviews: “Writing perceptively about class, race and recent US history (as well as the movies) Sterritt steers refreshingly far from the academic waffle that can plague this kind of book, and builds a reasoned portrait of one of America’s punchiest commentators.” — Total Film

“My admiration for Spike Lee has always been substantial, but thanks to this book I now admire him even more. Although David Sterritt does not blink at the many dilemmas the films present, he has greatly enriched our appreciation as well as our understanding of Spike Lee’s cinema.” — Krin Gabbard, Stony Brook University

“Since his filmmaking debut in the mid-eighties, Spike Lee has become one of the most influential African American directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Through clear and cogent prose, David Sterritt also illustrates what makes Lee one of the finest American filmmakers working today.” — Paula Massood, Brooklyn College

This is essential reading from a major American film critic; my highest recommendation.

Happy 104th Birthday, Manoel de Oliveira!

Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Manoel de Oliveira directs Claudia Cardinale in his new film Gebo and the Shadow (2012).

I simply can’t get around it; Manoel de Oliveira is my favorite director working right now, period, and at the age of 104 — it’s just astounding — he has released a few film, Gebo and the Shadow (2012). His birthday was actually December 11th, but he’s been making films since 1927, and directing since 1931 — also simply astounding — which means he has been directing films for 82 years. There’s no one else who can even approach that record, and the most amazing thing is that Oliveira is still vital, active, writing and directing films that are among the best he’s ever done, really only hitting his stride in his late 80s. In this latest film, working with such topflight talent as Claudia Cardinale, Jeanne Moreau, Michael Lonsdale and Ricardo Trepa, Oliveira spins the tale of Gebo, a man living in a house in reduced circumstances with his mother and daughter in law, whose son Joao has long since vanished for parts unknown. Suddenly, one night, Joao returns. Is it for good, or for ill?

As Boyd van Hoeij of Variety notes of the film, which screened at the Venice Film Festival on September 5, 2012, “the dean of helmers, [the then] 103-year-old Portuguese maestro Manoel de Oliveira, adds another striking entry to his ever-lengthening filmography with Gebo and the Shadow. The French-language adaptation of a Raul Brandao play, about a poor Lusitanian family awaiting the return of its vagabond offspring, offers a variation on the parable of the prodigal son. In a late-career standout, Claudia Cardinale limns the role of the impressionable mother, who’s been kept in the dark about her son’s nothing-to-write-home-about ways.”

Oliveira’s long career has long been a source on wonderment and inspiration for me; even now, at the age of 104, he is currently working on pre-production for his sixtieth film, The Church of the Devil. His 2010 film The Strange Case of Angelica marked the first time Oliveira used digital special effects work, but he handled it with his typical restraint and mastery. It’s a shame that his work doesn’t get the distribution in the US that it so clearly deserves, since 1997 in particular, he’s racked up a stack of absolute masterpieces, including Voyage to the Beginning of the World, I’m Going Home, A Talking Picture, Magic Mirror, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl and many others.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Gebo and The Shadow.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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